A few years back, Andy and I had the opportunity to travel to Cambodia. What a magnificent place. We spent days on end exploring the temples of Angkor Wat and it's neighboring sites. The faces of Bayon are carved into stone that stretched high into the sky. I felt small and in awe of the work and craftsmanship that stood before me.
There was a sense of a knowledge and a purpose that was greater than oneself. A secret that the men and women who had created this masterpiece knew and I do not. That seems to be a common theme I notice when traveling. A strong sense of purpose, a greater belief, a tradition and history rich in comparison to my own. People seem happier and more satisfied with little to no acquired 'goods', only the true necessities. The people, kind, strong and prideful.
Angkor Wat Bayon
So I knew about the Khmer Rouge period in the 1970's and the communist regime that carried out a horrid genocide among the Cambodian people, particularly teachers, doctors and all who were highly educated. I saw the movie the Killing Fields. I knew of the mines that still litter the land today. But it doesn't matter, nothing can prepare you for what you will see on the streets of Cambodia. Nothing can prepare you to realize how much we take for granted here at home and how grateful we should be every day.
Let's go back to the temples for a moment because this was so impressive. The weather was hot, oppressively hot, by midday you could not bare to be in full sun. We stayed at the hotel Soma Devi. Each day we would get up at 5:00 am, get dressed and head to the dining room to eat breakfast, the moment it opened at 5:30. We would be out the door to meet the gentleman that became our tuk-tuk driver for the week seconds later.
He charmed us for sure because he had the slowest motorbike in the country, but he wore a pork
pie checkered hat and smiled at us through the glass of the breakfast room each morning with a shit eating grin knowing full well we could not say no to his assistance. He was dynamite, but his tuk-tuk, not so much... He would drive us anywhere we wanted to go, stop anywhere and give us advice on what we should see and do next. He took us to over 20 different temples and villages during the mornings. After lunch, we would head back to the hotel pool for a reprieve from the heat. In the early evening, we would head back out to see more of the sites. There is so much to take in.
One thing that became immediately evident was that children were sent out during the day and evening to sell bracelets and copied Lonely Planet books. These children were bright and well practiced. Some of them had a shtick - 'where are you from?' We would answer the USA. 'where in the USA?' inquisitively asked. We would answer, thinking they never heard of it, 'a place called Michigan'. Then it would begin, these children had memorized all of the statistics for each state. They would holler 'Michigan!' 'Wow - capital Lansing, state bird robin, known for the American automobile, population 9.9 million - minus 2 because you are here'. The big eyes, ear to ear smiles, and warm hearts looking for a few cents took us every time.
The sad part is, that as we continue to give them money, it continues to keep them out of school or playing or learning a skill. It perpetuates the shtick, begging, and someone behind a tree watching somewhere and taking the money from them. We learned after a few days and having collected more books and bracelets than one could carry, to bring fruit from the morning breakfast buffet out and provide that to each of them. They were ecstatic.
One day a group of children came upon us and we had no fruit left. We asked them to sing a song to us. At first, they were puzzled and then one of the older kids started to sing and the rest joined in. That didn't feel right either, but we were able to experience something different with them. Something that also seemed to make them smile and brought joy.
Harder yet, was coming across a small boy who had no legs, as he had lost them playing in a field where one of the mines had not been found or detonated previously. Of course over 30 years later, this young boy had no idea of what history had laid in the path he would be taking. Gratitude, all I can say is complete gratitude for what I have.
The most interesting was a man we came across one evening shopping for postcards. He was pushing a homemade wooden cart up the street, it had books organized across the top and his story written in English on a laminated card. He was not interested in participating in the army but was forced to join. One day while performing his assigned duties, he had bent over to pick up something shiny that caught his eye on the ground and it was a mine. It blew off both his arms just past his elbows. He wanted to work, so he made the cart and was selling books. We bought three. He eagerly picked up each book and made a pile with the stumps that had taken the place of his full arms, of course with no hands. Amazingly, he pulled a plastic bag down from a hook hung across the top of the cart. Andy offered to assist and the man shook his head profusely no. He rubbed the bag between the spot on his arms where his elbows would have been and worked the bag open. He carefully placed each book one by one into the bag and collected our money. The pride, perseverance, and strength this man has possessed was overwhelming to me.
But back to the temples, easy for me to be distracted by such amazing people. My favorite temple
was not the namesake temple of Angkor Wat, but instead one of the temples overtaken by nature - Ta Prohm. Built in 1186 it now looks like a scene straight out of an Indiana Jones movie set. The enormous root systems of trees have overtaken the buildings and grown up in and around them like assisting structures to the architecture. Many of the doorways, rooms and passages were blocked by carved stones, statues and rubble that lay in piles moved into an intricate order by the overgrowth of the surrounding jungle.
So our tuk-tuk driver took us to other places as well, including a water village called Chong Kneas. Everyone lives on houseboats and travels between houses, stores, schools, and restaurants is via boats. The smallest children were operating boats without adults. Some of the buildings were connected by extensive dock systems. It was an amazing place to visit, but I could never survive there.
Another place we visited was a stick village called Kompong Phluk. This village's main income was shrimp paste. It was a village dependent on the tides and time of year to determine if it was underwater or dry ground. They would go shrimp fishing and then lay the shrimp out on large tarps to dry in the sun. (We were there for dry ground.) There were shrimps as far as the eye could see. Little kids, some with no clothes, ran around playing with a single soccer ball and once in a while one of the kids would run over and grab a shrimp and pop it in their mouth. It was a riot. They smiled and ran and had not a care in the world.
Their houses were built of sticks high off the ground, you could see inside, there was nothing more than a large bowl and a couple of dishes. There was no furniture, beds, chairs, comforts to speak of. It was the most basic lifestyle I have ever witnessed. I would guess the number of articles of clothing they owned was very minimal. I thought of this, because I never saw a closet or storage of any kind like that. I think of my closet that is overpacked with fast fashion that even the Salvation Army can't use all of anymore and is becoming landfill offshore. But that is another story all together, conspicuous consumption, spontaneous and point of purchase sales... it reminds me of the Netflix documentary 'Minimalism'. It is worth watching. Anyway, in Siam Reap and the surrounding villages, everyone was happy, everyone was smiling. They possessed another secret, perhaps of minimalism and purpose.
As we cruised the streets in the afternoons looking on to the normal daily activities and markets where tourists did not usually partake, we gained a great insight into their lives. They were active, not sedentary; they were social and outgoing, they were happy and vivacious, they had little, but they had everything.
So, what are we missing?
Stick Houses in Kompong Phluk built high off the ground
A shy girl - so funny
Shrimp drying on the large tarps